Whitney Pier residents get chance to hear legal options

By Greg McNeil
Cape Breton Post
Thursday, June 5, 2003

People who live or have lived near Sydney's steel plant, tar ponds and coke ovens site had a chance to weigh their legal options Tuesday night.

Representatives from the law firms of Wagner and Associates out of Halifax and London, Ont. based Siskind Cromarty Ivey and Dowler discussed ways of seeking restitution for devalued property and health problems, both related to exposure to toxic chemicals.

To date, 165 current and for mer residents of Whitney Pier have sought their help. Tuesday's meeting gave some of them the chance to ask questions about the legal course of action.

Mike Peerless, of the Ontario based law firm, known for its efforts involving the ecoli tainted water tragedy in Walkerton, told the crowd of about 60 at the meeting that he would not be trying to find the entire truth about the history of steel plants in Sydney Instead, he would be trying to win the case at hand.
"We are lawyers for our clients and as such it is our job to make our clients' case. It is not our job to find out whether or not coke ovens should have been placed inside communities like Sydney
"It is not our job to sort out whether or not steel mills ought to dump things in residential neighbourhoods. Our job is to find out whether or not we can prove our clients were injured and get them compensated if they were (injured)." This means injured physically or by property damage, he added.

Peerless is confident in establishing the cases of his clients. "From what I can see and from what I have read and from the scientists I have spoken to, I think our chances are good," he said, noting his firm has settled almost 75 percent of all class - actions it has represented.

He cautioned residents that such a legal endeavors generally takes some two to three years to complete, and perhaps longer.

Litigator Ray Wagner of Wager and Associates said the strategy they will employ will involve the choice between a mass tort or an individual class action.

He said a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling has opened the door to jurisdictions, such as Nova Scotia, that don't allow class action suits, to proceed under civil procedure rules. "Effectively to have the same rules as if they had a (class action) statute." The matter will likely go ahead as a mass tort, a less specific litigation, to include only those who wish to be involved. "If you haven't stated to us that you want to be part of it, you are not going to be covered by it."

Residents will not pay for their legal representation, but the firms take a percentage of any money awarded.

Over the course of the evening several residents expressed fears of a counter suit filed against them if they were to lose. Although this possibility exists, both Wagner and Peerless said the chances of this situation occurring would be remote.

Resident Elizabeth Beaton was pleased with the tone of the meeting. "I think they (the lawyers) have been very open in helping us to understand the litigation. Their approach has been open, it has been empathetic and I think there is a lot of trust here." Ron MacDonald used to live on Frederick Street, but now lives in Glace Bay He was provided with legal fees and moving expenses after his Whitney Pier home was purchased by the provincial government.

MacDonald still believes he was never properly compensated for personal suffering or pain. "We still feel that after the Frederick Street issue we were never compensated properly for what happened. It is always still in our minds, we just can't seem to forget it. This sounds like an opportunity to continue the fight."

Rhonda Crawford, of Hankard Street, spoke for a group of Whitney Pier residents established in November 2001 because they felt levels of government were not listening to their concerns. This group initiated the current legal action. "I am very encouraged and have all the confidence in Wagner and Associates, and also having another firm with so many lawyers to assist is beneficial to our suit."

Tuesday's briefing gave her the information she expected. "I wanted to meet the new lawyer (Peerless), hear what he had to say, learn about what his experience has been and how he can contribute to our whole case."

Crawford feels more people a should get involved with the legal action. "There are a lot of people who are undecided and need to " start making decisions and get involved in the issue.
"This is our community, their children's community - this is a health issue and a property issue and people need to get involved."

Defendants being considered include the federal and provincial government.

The allegations residents will be making include widespread contamination from a chemical recovery plant, a nearby railbed and the spraying of PCBs to eliminate dust when the steel plant was in operation.